Sunday, October 28, 2012

Robert Samuelson embarrasses himself

Robert Samuelson thoroughly embarrasses himself in a Washington Post op-ed published on Thursday. His column attacks a New York Times editorial he claims is so wrong-headed as to move him to write a column "refuting" an editorial for the first time in 35 years. Unfortunately for him, the only thing the column refutes is the idea that he understands what he is talking about.

Others have already done a fine job tearing apart his argument, including Josh Bivens (at EPI), whose data the New York Times cited, as well as Dean Baker (at CEPR) and Paul Krugman. I just want to make one additional point that has not yet been made.

Samuelson's key claim is the following assertion: "What the Times omits is the money to support all these government jobs. It must come from somewhere — generally, taxes or loans (bonds, bills). But if the people whose money is taken via taxation or borrowing had kept the money, they would have spent most or all of it on something — and that spending would have boosted employment."

From this he concludes that government job creation must substitute "public-sector workers for private-sector workers," and hence does not count as real job creation. Note the faulty logic: if he is right, then the exact same argument can be made in the opposite direction — not taking money via taxation increases private jobs only by reducing government jobs. Depending on your starting point, then, the private sector doesn't create jobs either.

So where does the logic go wrong? Well, Samuelson's simplistic analysis fails to take into account 2 1/2 considerations. First, not all jobs cost the same amount of money, so if we're just moving money back and forth between the government and the private sector, job creation takes place in whichever sector jobs cost less. Second, jobs are not the only thing money is spent on in either sector, so job creation/destruction may depend on which sector spends a greater proportion of its money on jobs.

Third (and this is the 1/2 consideration above), "real" job creation happens, of course, not by shifting money back and forth between the public and private sectors, but rather when certain jobs and certain spending have a multiplier effect and generate further jobs. Samuelson knows this, but simply asserts  that only private sector jobs & spending can have this effect.

Of course, Samuelson does not offer even the tiniest scrap of evidence for this claim, and others who have responded to his column (especially Dean Baker) have already highlighted its flaws.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Grumpy word usage post: Pushing ... the envelope

Right now, the New York Times online front page has as its central headline "Pushing the envelope in attacks on Obama" (the article itself has a different title).

This popular phrase originated in the world of aviation, and more specifically the interaction between engineers and pilots. The "envelope" of a plane refers to the calculated extremes of a plane's performance capabilities.

The phrase was popularized most famously in Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff ("pushing the outside of the envelope ... seemed to be the great challenge and satisfaction of flight test"). The point, obviously, is that an envelope has an outer surface, and that is what pilots were pushing against. Pilots were not trying to redesign the plane to give it a different envelope (i.e. they were not pushing the envelope) — that's what engineers did — but rather to push against the existing surface.

Wolfe's usage is correct, as is the more commonly seen "pushing the edge of the envelope." Incorrect, however, is "pushing the envelope", which is by far the most common form (in Google, 16 times more common than "pushing the edge").

Even in the aviation world, the phrase was soon shortened to "pushing the envelope". Be that as it may, I still find this usage somewhat irritating. I'm similarly annoyed by the usage of the now-common "I could care less" to mean "I couldn't care less": it just seems wrong to change a phrase in such a way as to make its intended meaning explicitly at odds with what it actually says.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Random Virginia presidential factoid of the day

I just learned (via Ta-Nehisi Coates), that John Tyler, who was elected president in 1840 and was the 10th president of the US, still has a grandson alive today! A reminder of how young the United States really is, as a country.

(In fact, the grandson apparently still lives on the ancestral estate, Sherwood Forest, not too far from Williamsburg.) Tyler is of special interest to the William & Mary government department, because at some point in the not-too-distant future we are scheduled to move into Tyler Hall, which is named after the Tyler family.